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Wider War:
The Struggle for Cambodia, Thailand and Laos

(Praeger, NY; Pall Mall, UK, 1971)

"Solid Reporting about Indochina" -- Army, Vol. 21, Association of the United States Army, 1971

"Donald Kirk is attempting to break an illusion -- that the Vietnam conflict is an isolated struggle rather than a phase of a regional war....the most balanced and comprehensive yet to appear in a book. Sihanouk's dilemma from 1954 to March 18, 1970, is treated fairly, as are the reasons for voting the prince out of power. Kirk's command and application of the facts surrounding all developments...pay tribute to Kirk's professionalism."
-- Far Eastern Economic Review, p. 36, Vols. 73-74, 1971

Written at the height of the Vietnam War in Saigon's Majestic Hotel. The title derives from President Nixon's declaration that U.S. forces, pouring into North Vietnamese base areas in Cambodia, did not seek a "wider war."

"The author's delineation of the interaction between the four theaters of war is by far the book's strongest point....the best account so far of the complicated power play that overthrew Sihanouk. The resulting political-military situation, he rightly asserts, is the major challenge to the 'Nixon Doctrine.'....adds depth and perception to the problem and should be required reading for those who want to understand where the United States stands in Indochina and where it may be headed."

- Richard Butwell, Saturday Review, June 12, 1971

"The book has an interesting point of view and should be well worth reading."."

- The Economist, August 28, 1971


The war is seen "in the perspective of the centuries-old struggle among the peoples of that area. The Vietnamese have been steadily pushing southward and westward while the Thai have been expanding eastward. The Cambodians and the Laotians are caught in between. From this historical background, Kirk studies the roles which Cambodia, Thailand and Laos play in the present conflict. He discusses developments in each of these countries separately and explains the fears and hopes, as expressed by the various national leaders, which seem to reflect the historical struggles."

- Library Journal, 1971


More than 35 years after writing the book, the author discovered via the internet two highly contrasting reviews that he had missed in well-known academic journals:

"Donald Kirk...takes as a point of reference to an understanding of the interrelationship, the affirmation by President Nixon on April 30 1970 that the United States would avoid a 'wider war' by intervening in Cambodia....Mr. Kirk points up this facet of American involvement which reflects on American political purpose in excellent pieces of separate reporting on Cambodia, Thailand and Laos in which he discusses the domestic and international condition of those countries. Mr. Kirk is concerned above all with the inter-connectedness of the war in Indochina and as such seeks to provide a historical perspective to underpin his narrative and analysis. He represents the most crucial aspect of the Indochina conflict as the rivalry between Thailand and Vietnam for control of the Mekong or more specifically for suzerainty over Laos and Cambodia. To the extent that the intervention of the United States, particularly in Laos, has served Thai interests, then such a thesis is unexceptionable....The strength and value of this work rests on the substantial reporting on Cambodia, Thailand and Laos."

- Michael Leifer, London School of Economics, The Journal of Asian Studies, November, 1972


A year later trendy Australian scholar Milton Osborne took the opposite view. Curiously, shortly after Osborne's review appeared, Kirk had met him for a lengthy discussion of the war, but he neglected to mention the book, much less give an opinion about it. Osborne's verdict on the years of research and writing that went into the project:

"Donald Kirk's Wider War bears many of the marks of being a journalist's 'quickie.' Completed in March 1971, it provides an account of developments in the Indochina region after Prince Sihanouk's overthrow and the subsequent spread of the war to engulf Cambodia. The book also essays an evaluation of the internal security situation in Thailand and gives some attention to Laos. The overall impression is of superficiality--despite the presence of footnotes...."

- Milton Osborne Pacific Affairs, Winter, 1973-1974


Here's a current view from www.mekong.net:

"Covering all the countries surrounding Vietnam, the author spent months in each locale, merging past with present conflicts.

"A highlight is a detailed account of the fall of Prince Sihanouk, the rise of the American-supported Lon Nol regime and the invasion of Cambodia by American troops in May 1970.

"The author was in Phnom Penh in the weeks after the fall of Sihanouk, accompanied American troops in the Parrot's Beak and Fish Hook as they roared across the frontier from Vietnam, and traveled through the countryside as the Khmer Rouge expanded their power. Matthew Ridgway evaluated Vietnam from the perspective of a military leader. Arthur Schlesinger viewed the country through the eyes of a historian. Donald Kirk's perspective was closer: Kirk was the man on the ground. As a correspondent for publications including the Chicago Tribune, Kirk had years of experience in Southeast Asia. In his 1971 book Wider War, Kirk never explicitly states his opinion on the U.S. role in Indochina. His analysis of the factors at play in the region, however, has held up remarkably well.

"Wider War is a good study of the regional tensions at play in the Vietnam War. One needs only read as far as the Preface to see just how accurate Kirk's predictions were:

"'The American public, as well as most of the rest of the world, has long harbored the illusion that the Vietnam conflict is an isolated struggle rather than a phase of a regional war. This illusion should have been shattered in 1970 by the sudden expansion of the fighting across the Cambodian frontier, but Americans still seem to view that event as only an episode, a 'happening,' and interlude, as it were, amid the battles in Vietnam.

"'This book, therefore, is an attempt to delineate the "wider war" for Indochina -- the contest that began long before the entry of the first U.S. combat troops into South Vietnam, much less Cambodia, and promises to go on for some time after the Americans have left.'

"A number of insightful observations are sprinkled throughout the book. In particular, Kirk provides an intriguing glimpse of Sihanouk's thoughts on the eve of war. Sihanouk, Kirk writes, 'minimized the danger posed by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops in Cambodian jungle sanctuaries, evidently in hopes that the Vietnamese would reciprocate by disappearing after winning the war to communize South Vietnam. Indicative of his deepest fears was his maintenance of 20,000 troops, two thirds of his armed forces, along Cambodia's Thai, rather than Vietnamese, frontier.' (p. 7) Later, however, he reconsidered. According to Kirk, in an article written by Sihanouk in January 1970 -- but not published until a month after his overthrow -- "Sihanouk made plain that the 'foreign masters' whom he most feared were the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, 'several tens of thousands' of whom, he said, had 'infiltrated large border areas of Cambodia, promising to leave "at the end of the war.' (p. 42)

"Kirk's portrait of Sihanouk cuts to the heart of the Prince's popularity:

"'More than any other Cambodian leader, however, Sihanouk attempted to meet his countrymen, to communicate with them on all levels, to cut through the barriers separating and alienating the poor from the elite and to imbue in them a sense of participation in the country's future. The success of the prince as a grass-roots politician was due not merely to his intellectual recognition of the need for rapport with his people but to the ease and obvious enthusiasm with which he mingled with the masses. He loved to climb out of his car or helicopter on visits to remote towns and villages and chat with the first peasants he saw.' (p. 73)

"Yet Sihanouk was not above ruthlessness. Angered by leftist demonstrations in March 1967, he supported Lon Nol's recommendations to crush the Samlaut rebellion (in Battambang province) by force. 'Hundreds of landless peasants were killed, scores of villages burned, and martial law was imposed in the province, before the rebels, estimated at several thousand, retreated to the forests in mid-April, 1967.' (p. 78)

"Sihanouk's image -- his womanizing, his hobbies as a saxophonist and filmaker -- contributed to the perception that he was not to be taken seriously as a head of state. In truth, however, his actions were not governed by caprice and whimsy: they were the result of cold, hard calculation. His opinions frequently put him at odds with the American government.

"Citing the difference between his viewpoint and that of American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, prior to Cambodia's independence, for example, Sihanouk argued that 'Independence was in a way the 'oxen' that alone would pull the 'plow' of pacification and success against the Viet Minh and Communization. For Mr. Dulles, it was just the opposite: The oxen could only be the French Army, war materiel, and American money. Each of us was convinced that the other was putting the plow before the oxen.' (p. 44)

"Certain that the Communists were destined to win in Vietnam, Sihanouk worked hard to remain in their good graces. Toward that end, he permitted massive amounts of aid for the Communists to flow through Cambodia. Sihanouk, Kirk writes, 'proved remarkably successful at convincing correspondents, diplomats, and the like that U.S. intelligence officers had erred regarding Communist activities in Cambodia. He often sponsored junkets for correspondents through vast stretches of jungle, where they almost invariably found no traces of elusive Communist forces.' In November 1967, Sihanouk invited several foreign journalists to tour Cambodia. This time, however, three of the journalists -- Vietnam correspondents George McArthur, Horst Faas, and Ray Herndon -- had been advised of the exact location of one of the sanctuaries by the U.S. mission in Saigon. Accompanied by several Cambodian soldiers, they followed a trail outside the town of Memot and came to an empty camp, 'complete with huts of bamboo and thatch, a concealed truck park, an official paper with Vietnamese writing on it, and tracks leading to the frontier. The camp had obviously been abandoned within the last few hours -- or minutes.' (p. 106-107)

"Kirk also noted that many of the supplies for the Vietnamese communists came overland from Sihanoukville, 'the main port of entry for arms bound for Communist troops in Cambodia and much of South Vietnam. Most of the goods arrived legitimately at Sihanoukville -- or the Cambodian Navy base at Ream, some 20 miles to the east -- as Chinese, Soviet, or Eastern European military aid for Cambodian armed forces. From Sihanoukville and Ream, the supplies were first hauled by the local Chinese-owned Hak Ly trucking company to Cambodian Army storage depots and, eventually, to transshipment points near the border. A Cambodian soldier rode with each truckload to ensure its safe passage through military checkpoints.'(p. 107)

"While many conservatives argued that the Communists were bent on dominating the entire region (indeed, the entire world), Kirk argued otherwise. The primary goal of the Vietnamese in Cambodia, even after Sihanouk's overthrow, remained unchanged: maintain the supply lines for their forces in Cambodia and South Vietnam. 'An integral part of the Communist campaign, in fact, was to further weaken Cambodia's economy by obtaining easy passage to the rice-growing region around Battambang. Hanoi's objective was not to try to starve Phnom Penh but to obtain the food the North Vietnamese troops needed as it had done while Sihanouk was in power.' (p. 131-132)

"All in all, Wider War is a sober, balanced assessment of the situation in Indochina in the early Seventies. Could that situation -- and the subsequent destruction of Cambodia -- have been avoided? It is difficult to assess history, and even more difficult to assess a history that didn't happen. Trying to answer 'what if?' in hindsight is much like trying to predict the future.

"It's hard to see the future. But as Kirk, Ridgway, and Schlesinger demonstrated, it isn't impossible."

- www.mekong.net

The publisher has granted the author all rights to the book. Although long out-of-print, used copies may be obtained through Amazon and Barnes and Noble or by contacting the author.